Creative Approach to Law Firm Management for Working Moms
by Kristi Lush
Would this joyous news jeopardize my job or alter my career path?
After trying to politely turn down one partner’s strong suggestion of a "must try" rare buffalo burger at lunch, and another partner’s offer of sushi (despite the fact that I had lived in Japan for two years and previously disclosed a love for sushi), I decided the thin cloak of secrecy was no longer plausible and shared the news of my pregnancy.
Weeks later another associate announced her pregnancy, which was followed closely by the same announcement from our third — and only other — associate.
We three expectant mothers anxiously awaited the partners’ response to all three of their associates being pregnant at the same time, who would require overlapping maternity leaves and wanted to return on a part-time schedule.
My anxiety arose from two places: the experiences that other working-mom attorneys had shared with me and the stories and statistics imparted by legal-community-focused media showing the gap between women working as associates and making partner.
The disappointing glass ceiling stories of other female attorneys who felt forced to sacrifice family or career in the name of the other kept me up at night pondering questions like: Will the partners start syphoning off the more sophisticated matters to other attorneys? Will I have a future with this firm after my baby’s arrival? What sort of limitations will be put on my future based on my desire to be a wife, a mother, and a litigator?
As for the statistical evidence and articles, nationally almost half — 47 percent — of law school graduates are women who then go on to make up 45 percent of law firm associates; however, there is a significant shift when it comes to the transition to partnership.1 Astonishingly, women comprise only 19.5 percent of partners and only 15 percent of equity partners.2 This significant attrition rate is largely attributed to women looking for work–life balance opportunities — and few exist that enable women to don the hats of wife, mother, and sophisticated attorney. It seems that it really is only a matter of time before the commodity of underused, well-trained, and available working-mom attorneys becomes too huge for firms of all sizes to ignore.
Much to my surprise, the reaction I anticipated from the partners — and to a certain extent feared — was not at all what we got. Luckily for me, at Zupkus & Angell partners Bob Zupkus and Richard Angell were willing to take the lead in seizing this underused and available workforce.
What motivated this willingness, however, was not some well-thought-out euphoric plan of promoting women in the workplace; rather, unbeknownst to me, it was the "concept of enough."
Valerie Hausladen, in her book "Professional Destiny," describes "the concept of enough":
A trap that we are all susceptible to, especially in the Western world, is that we overlook the concept of having enough. We come to never fully enjoy what we have because we are always thinking about what we don’t yet have (a nicer home or car, more possessions, a bigger company, more money, finer art). This sense of wanting more is an insatiable hunger. It is poison to our soul and kills new, creative possibilities because it locks us into a pattern. It might make our life more comfortable but it doesn’t bring us true fulfillment, which only comes when we feel like we are making a difference in a genuine, meaningful way.
Angell explained his own journey toward "enough."
"Until my eldest child was 12, I worked evenings and weekends, but then I realized that in six years, my son would be off to college," he said.
While the firm and his career had flourished, "I cheated myself, cheated the kids, and I caught it just in time," Angell said.
Simply put, the partners collectively realized that they have been very fortunate and wanted to pay it forward to their associates. Content with their own choices and the balance they have struck between success at the firm and at home, Angell and Zupkus formulated a rough concept that would allow the associates to prove themselves to be capable attorneys while striking a practical work–life balance, in turn, leading to finding contentment earlier in their careers than the partners had.
By the time their three associates had announced their nearly back-to-back pregnancies, Angell said the three associates already had established themselves as "bright, conscientious entrepreneurs." This investment in their associates further facilitated the firm’s willingness to imagine creative possibilities for the future of its three associates and break away from the pattern of tradition.
When I returned from my maternity leave, an entire floor of the office building was transformed into the "new mommies" wing — and Angell and Zupkus even went so far as to purchase a changing table, create a pump-friendly environment, obtain a separate refrigerator for milk storage, and provide an avenue for working reduced hours.
Our little ones were invited to come to work with us, and my son frequently did during the first few months after I returned to work. I have countless fond memories of watching my son napping at my feet while I worked — and seeing my co-workers’ children doing the same.
This creativity, however, did not merely provide a one-sided benefit. The firm found its advantage in cost-savings by paying us hourly on a part-time basis (without benefits) and offering us unlimited, but unpaid, maternity leaves.
Making the adjustments to the new mommies’ wing also enabled the associates to be more efficient and productive while at work. Beyond its most obvious uses and benefits, Angell continues to insist that the motivating force behind the purchase of the changing table was predominately one of safety.
One of my fondest working-mommy memories occurred before I returned to work. Near the end of my maternity leave, I got a call from Angell asking me to attend an important meeting with him at a 16th Street firm. After informing him that I had not yet made child care arrangements for my son, he told me not to worry — he would conference in the other attorneys and let them know that we would be bringing my son with us to the meeting. I couldn’t help but notice, and flash a brief smirk, at the pause on the other end of the phone when Angell informed them that an infant would be accompanying us to their office. The image of my boss and I walking down 16th Street in our business attire, together carrying my son in his infant car seat into a downtown high rise, will burn in my memory for many years to come.
More importantly, the goals of the meeting were accomplished and my clients’ needs were met, even if my child was asleep at my feet.
Perhaps to some, a quick phone call, the purchase of a mini-fridge, or an invitation to bring your infant to work may not seem like momentous gestures, but to me, they were life-altering actions. In a traditional law firm environment, I likely would have felt the need either to hang up my legal career to start a family or sacrifice motherhood, and perhaps my marriage, for some archaic notion of high-quality legal services.
Luckily, I have not been asked to do either. Zupkus & Angell was willing to accept me for who I am, take any bumps in the road as an opportunity to creatively imagine mutually beneficial solutions for working mothers, and to find fulfillment by making a difference in a genuine and meaningful way in my life, in the lives of the other expectant mothers, and in their own. D
Kristi Lush is an attorney with Zupkus & Angell whose practice involves defending insurance companies and employers in construction defect, bad faith, civil liability, and employment law claims. She may be reached at email@example.com.
1 American Bar Association - Commission on Women in the Profession, A Current Glance at Women in the Law (September 2012), available at bit.ly/XzAIUi
2 Id. For other relevant information and articles, see National Association for Law Placement’s (NALP) website at nalp.org/minoritieswomen, Center for Legal Inclusiveness at legalinclusiveness.org, and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession at americanbar.org/groups/women.